When we set off to find the Road Trotting we travelled roads we had never seen before: out to the east of Bantry. We were intrigued by a sign to ‘Tralibane Memorial’ and duly diverted to investigate. Up the hills and around a sweeping bend in the road: the first thing we saw was Mary, looking down over her modest garden – but that wasn’t the memorial; we found it a little further on. Our immediate view was a man playing a flute on top of a rock, approached by an ornate staircase. As we took in the whole site we had the impression of a huge plateau carved out of the hill summit – somewhere you could park a hundred cars or assemble a mighty crowd. It had the feel of a place where a Pope might come to give the Mass: there is an ornate Commemorative Wall surmounted by grand light fittings and with room for 120 granite name-plaques on each side.
It’s a place waiting for something to happen. On the day of our visit it was deserted – and a little bleak. But, on other days, things do happen: crowds arrive and pay tribute – they come from all corners of the world. They also dance, and great craic is had. What is it all about? Well, once we’d worked it out we realised that this is a very important shrine for me, and for all other players of Irish Traditional Music. This is a memorial to Captain Francis O’Neill, a man who was born in the townland of Tralibane in 1848; ran away to sea at the age of 16; worked his way around the world and survived a shipwreck; became a policeman in Chicago; survived a gangster shoot-out, and eventually attained the rank of Chief of Police in that city. But he is famous for his greatest achievement: a collection of Irish tunes which numbers nearly two thousand, and which probably forms the repertoire basis of most of the musicians keeping the tradition alive today. The O’Neill collections were certainly my own introduction to The Music, and the several volumes in my own sheet music library are still the most valuable resource I have, bar only the internet.
O’Neill was imbued with the music of his native West Cork while growing up. He played the flute himself but, like many traditional musicians, he didn’t read or write music. The transcriptions which now appear in his collections (which are still all in print) were made by another O’Neill – James: unrelated but a colleague in Chicago. If you want to read a fuller account of O’Neill’s life try Ronan Nolan’s comprehensive article, where you can also find links to many of the wax phonograph cylinders recorded by Captain Francis during his collecting years (edit 2019: this link is no longer active!).